The Exciting History of Your Double-Hung Sash Windows

Editor’s Note: Excerpt from an article originally published in the February 2006 issue.

By: Dillon Cashman and Sam Soemardi, Asheville Window Restoration.

Did you know that it took a thousand years of human innovation so that you can close your windows against the winter chill and comfortably watch the snowflakes fall?

Originally a window was just a hole in the side of a building to let in air and light. Having a hole in the side of your house in a warm climate might not be such a big deal; in fact, it would be a necessity if you had your goats living in the house with you. But what if you lived in cold dark Norway?

Before advances in glass technology made plate glass affordable, people used all sorts of different things to shut up those holes in their walls. Very early windows were shielded with hide or cloth stretched over the opening or with wooden shutters. These methods kept the elements out, but they also blocked all the light. Consider a winter in a Siberian yurt: cold and dark with no means for sunlight to enter the house on the short days. Later

various types of coverings were invented that allowed light but not weather to pass into a building: paper in Japan and China, flattened pieces of translucent horn in Northern Britain, and plates of thinly sliced marble or sheets of mica in Rome.

Glass windows started making an appearance about 100 AD in Roman architecture. Fragments of glass in a bronze frame were found in the ruins of Pompeii. By the 12th century, stained glass was used in Gothic cathedrals, but domestic glass windows were not a practical proposition until the early 16th century, and then only in the houses of the wealthy.

The first glass windows to appear in houses were fixed panes of leaded glass, usually above shuttered openings. This allowed for some light and some control of the temperature of the house.

By the 17th century, the homes of the upper classes were outfitted with windows completely made of glass that could be opened and shut. These windows were made from small panes of glass held together with lead, stone, or wooden mullions. These windows worked on hinges like small doors, and are called casement windows. By the way, mullions are those vertical and/or horizontal pieces of wood in the multi-paned windows that are so common in the historical houses of Montford. From there it’s a pretty quick leap from the mullioned casement windows to the modern double-hung sash windows that you have in your house. They were developed in England around 1670.

In America, as in England, the first windows were also casement windows. In the beginning of the eighteenth century single- and double-hung windows were widely introduced. Subsequently, many styles of these vertical sliding sash windows have come to be associated with specific building periods or architectural styles, such as Victorian, Craftsman, American Colonial, and Queen Anne. You can find examples of all these architectural styles in Asheville. In case you missed our last article, a double-hung sash window is a frame holding a large area of glass that is easily raised up or down because of a weight on each side, concealed in the wall, balances the sash by means of a cord running over a pulley.

An interesting historical note: in 17th century England, glass making was costly and the use of glass for windows and other purposes was even costlier because of a tax levied specifically on it. The tax was introduced in 1696 under King William III and was designed to impose tax relative to the prosperity of the taxpayer. The bigger the house, the more windows it was likely to have, hence the more tax the occupants would pay. The richest families in the kingdom used this tax to set themselves apart from the merely rich. They would commission a country home or a manor house whose architecture would make the maximum possible use of windows. In extreme cases, they would have windows built over structural walls. It was an exercise in ostentation, spurred by the window tax.

By the late 19th century, glass technology had raised the availability of affordable sheets of glass for windows. Suddenly it was not uncommon to see houses with as many large windows as were once the privilege of the wealthy mansion owner. Many of the houses kept shutters for protection from severe storms, but by the mid 20th-century shutters were mere architectural fashion.